A review I wrote of John Gurney’s recent book. N.B. This review has appeared elsewhere.
‘Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?’
- Gerrard Winstanley (The New Law of Righteousness, 1649)
For those familiar with the excellent (if rather odd) 1975 film Winstanley, these lines may ring out in actor Miles Halliwell’s serene, well-spoken, home-counties voice. While we can never know what Winstanley really sounded like, enough is known of his life to give a fascinating insight into much of his personal and political journey. Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676) was of the ‘middling sort’, a cloth trader from Wigan who moved to London, lost his business and became one of the founders of a lasting radical tradition: that of the Diggers.
As John Gurney points out in the introduction to his recent book, the time seems ripe for a reappraisal and wider dissemination of the thought of Winstanley. Issues of gross inequality, pressure on the natural environment, the oppressive role of the state (and its favouring of the wealthy), and the alienation of people from the product of their labour all gripped Winstanley, and they of course remain key problems for the contemporary left. This volume cuts to the heart of Winstanley’s thought on these topics and many more, yet it goes beyond the work of one man and successfully puts the Digger movement in its historical context.
After a stirring introduction, the second chapter gives a good outline of the material links between Wigan (and Lancashire more generally) and London through the burgeoning textile industry and its associated guilds; this was the tumultuous world of early mercantile capitalism. Winstanley’s retreat from London, caused seemingly by failure in his chosen trade, led him to Cobham in Surrey. His radicalisation there took place during personal economic difficulties but Gurney sensibly declines to assign direct causality; we should not automatically assume that it was only because the system failed for Winstanley that he turned against it.
Indeed, Gurney’s excellent contextualisation of the religious (moral) framework embraced by Winstanley and others suggests that egalitarianism was a growing concern at this time. This is a similar line to that taken by Christopher Hill, whose work should probably be read alongside Gurney’s biography. Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down (1972) paints a broad picture of the many contemporary political and religious radicalisms which erupted in seventeenth-century Britain. While Hill covered the Diggers only relatively briefly, Winstanley emerged, according to Gurney, as ‘the real hero, and the true revolutionary’ (p.7).(1)
The third chapter traces intellectual parallels and antecedents relating to Winstanley’s ‘Digger’ writings, but again Gurney declines to speculate on direct influences, instead pointing to the more general milieu of common radical and millenarian ideas. Gurney identifies two major innovations in the Digger movement, both important strands of Winstanley’s works: the consistent complaint that the English were still living under the Norman Yoke (that is, an aristocratic, arbitrary elite imposed from without), and the failure of that elite to honour the social contract. Winstanley argued that the common people had opposed the king with both money and blood, and had paid a disproportionately high price in both.
There follows a very useful summary of the longstanding historical debate over the precise relationship between the Diggers and the Levellers. Gurney’s approach is rather unusual but refreshing; he essentially tells us that the issue is not all that important, and certainly should not obscure the radical demands of either group. Much of the confusion centres on a particular Winstanley pamphlet called The True Levellers Standard Advanced (1649). Note the lack of apostrophe; Gurney suggests that it refers (in the singular) to Christ, the True Leveller. This would negate a great deal of historical debate over why the Diggers (who did not seem to refer to themselves by that name either) had given themselves a name so close to that of an already-existing radical movement, the Levellers. Gurney also brings out very well the viciousness of the attacks on Winstanley himself, on his livestock, and on the land used by the Diggers.
Leftist traditions are divided over whether Winstanley represents a true precursor to later incarnations of socialism or communism, but Gurney makes a powerful case for the Diggers as genuine proto-communists. It is difficult to argue with this, though some leftist traditions of course do; Winstanley favoured a national strike, attacked wage labour, believed that all things are held in common and railed against the clerical and secular authorities and their wealthy masters. That said, readers may find it a step too far when Gurney insists that Winstanley’s final important work, The Law of Freedom (1652), fits with this radical set of ideals. There are bold attempts to smooth the differences between the earlier and later Winstanley but those extracts from The Law of Freedom included (in a very fair and even-handed manner) by Gurney still convey a retreat into a more conservative and patriarchal line of argument.
Finally, we should remember to look a bit further afield. The context of the outbreak of radicalism is not only the ‘English Revolution’, as Christopher Hill dubbed it, but a wider series of economic and social upheavals ranging across Europe during the transition from late feudalism to early capitalism (c.1350-c.1700). However, the intricacies of these conflicts are often lost to modern leftist traditions because of their close ties to religious conflict. Beginning with the Peasants’ Revolt in England and the Wycliffe-inspired Lollard movement, the continuing outbreaks of rebellion by the poor, often supported by radical dissenting clerics, spread across Europe and reached a numerical peak in the enormous (but relatively little-known) German Peasants’ War of 1524-26. In this conflict we may find many strands of egalitarian and millenarian thought which later were fused with the specific English complaints about the Norman Yoke to form a hotbed of radicalism in the 1640s. It is very hard to read Winstanley’s work without thinking of Thomas Müntzer, for example. Müntzer, a cleric, was beheaded in Thuringia in 1525 having proclaimed ‘omnia sunt communia’ (‘everything is common’, usually taken to mean ‘all things belong to all people’); a Winstanleyian sentiment to be sure.
1. Hill went into greater detail in The Religion of Gerrard Winstanley (1976).